US technology entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, has reportedly purchased iconic American newspaper, the Washington Post, for $250 million. Reports claim the offer has been accepted by the 135-year-old newspaper’s long-time owners, the Graham family. While media have raised the point that this is the latest in a spate of deals focused on print publications and evidence of the economic reality newspapers currently face, the growing debate as to the road ahead for Africa’s publications in a digital age has come to the fore.
For an entrepreneur who secured global acclaim for founding a digital phenomenon, a sizeable investment into a traditional medium speaks volumes of the credibility and benefit that still resides in hardcopy.
It raises the question as to what level of interest there exists between technology/ digital businesses and their paper-based counterparts in Africa.
Ownership and record deals to secure control of publishing groups and media outlets on the continent is not new to this sector. Examples like the proposed acquisition of Independent News & Media (South Africa) by Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM), which is reported to have been approved by The Competition Commission and final transfer of ownership expected to be finalised by mid-August, is one example.
Another is the purchase of Avusa Media by a unit of Mvelaphanda Group, giving rise to Times Media Group. This year Times Media Group acquired the remaining 50% of BDFM Publishers (publishers of Business Day, the Financial Mail and Business Day TV) from UK publisher Pearson.
In March 2013, The Times Media Group announced it had begun the process of selling two brands in its books division, namely Exclusive Books and Van Schaik.
An excerpt from a statement from the company read “All four divisions within TMG (media, retail solutions, books and entertainment) face challenging and evolving markets. Our first objective has been to identify those divisions where we have critical mass, strong market share and solid brands, and successfully position them for the future.”
Major media player in Africa, Naspers, signalled its intention to expand with a series of key deals, including a reported $422million purchase of 30% of Abril, said to be Brazil’s largest magazine publishing house, as well as a recent $165 million deal to purchase Russia’s largest internet portal, mail.ru
Print vs digital
A Forbes report detailed some of the distinguishing features of print that is expected to hold the medium up against the avalanche of digital offerings. These characteristics are listed as credibility, branding, target marketing and engaging.
The argument in favour of print, as detailed in the publication, includes the perception that material is perceived to be automatically credible if it is in black & white, that it reaches a precise audience and is unlikely to be quite as overlooked as digital content.
The debate may be ongoing, some analysts have gone as far as claiming that unless the digital experience comes up with a seriously hot replacement to iconic printed offerings, print will not be dying out any time soon.
Do local industry analysts agree?
Steven Ambrose, CEO of Strategy Worx Consulting, believes print is in its golden years and is unlikely to ever completely disappear. “The next few years will see the move for mass communication media to digital platforms. Jeff Bezos has seen that change in the books and magazine environment and with his spread and device strategy he can spearhead or at least stay relevant in the news arena. Print will not die but as a mass format it may eventually fade into obscurity. Print will have impact in niche areas and will continue to serve these niches for the foreseeable future.”
As to the short-term future of the Washington Post, Ambrose suggests there is a strong likelihood that the publication will go behind a paywall – which could require that visitors to the website pay for access to news articles.
“Good journalism does not come cheap even if the medium shift to digital with its much lower cost of distribution. The creation of content will remain key and good content will actually land up costing more as multimedia elements will have to be incorporated. A fully advertising based model may still be possible if the distribution and delivery channels in the new virtual world are able to replace print revenues,” he says.
Chris Tredger – Online Editor